Contributor: Morgan Motzel
Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Vicki Shabo, the Vice President at the National Partnership for Women & Families. As a lawyer and an advocate, Shabo focuses on policy issues such as paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, expansion and enforcement of protective legislation, workplace flexibility, fair pay, and pregnancy discrimination and serves as the Partnership’s contact for researchers, businesses and advocates. Friedman spoke with her about recent changes in nationwide social policy that have the potential to make the workplace fairer and friendlier for American families.
The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Stew Friedman: The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which is the nation’s only federal law designed to help working people meet the demands of work and family, just celebrated its 22nd anniversary last week. What have we learned over the last couple of decades of FMLA implementation, and how has it helped address the real needs of working families?
Vicki Shabo: The FMLA was put into effect by President Clinton in 1993, and we’ve just done a new calculation estimating that the FMLA has been used over 200 million times during those last 22 years. Every use represents a mother or a father who was able to take care of a child, a son or daughter who was able to sit by the bedside of a dying or ill parent, spouses taking care of each other, or people taking care of their own serious health conditions and then being able to go back to work—sustaining themselves financially, being able to continue in the labor market, and supporting their families.
The FMLA has been a tremendously successful law. The most important thing we know (besides the history of utility of the FMLA) about the FMLA’s impact on our culture is that when the FMLA was signed only 22% percent of workers had access to some kind of unpaid leave and now it’s close to 90%.
Nevertheless, the FMLA has significant gaps. About 40% of workers are left out of the legislation because they work for smaller businesses or haven’t been at their current job long enough to qualify. We also know that the number one reason that people can’t take unpaid leave under the FMLA is simply the fact that it is unpaid—there’s no requirement that they earn any wages or get any income replacement while they’re on leave. That fact leaves way too many people out because they can’t afford to lose that income; it’s the number one reason why somebody who needs the protection of the FMLA doesn’t take it.
SF: Last Friday, our city council in Philadelphia voted 14-2 to approve an ordinance that guarantees workers in this city the right to earn paid sick time. How is this recent change in Philadelphia an example of how things are changing more broadly?
VS: Right now, there are 20 places that have paid sick day laws—3 states (California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts) and 17 cities. That this legislation has slowly become more mainstream is a story of the fear and concern frequently espoused by corporate interests and trade organizations now being turned on its head by the evidence.
It’s also a story about very smart organizing that has brought together progressive businesses and health advocates, women’s and children’s groups, civil rights organizations, and others who are standing together and saying that it is absolutely crazy that someone could be fired in this country because they have the flu or they need to go pick their child up from the ER after a fall off the jungle gym. That’s just not right.
It’s also a story of leadership. We just saw an example of the President in the State of the Union address ask Congress to send him a bill guaranteeing workers the right to earn paid sick days at work. This is something that is incredibly popular with people, whether they are Democrats or Republicans—everybody gets sick, and everybody understands that you shouldn’t lose a day of pay or risk your job when that happens.
SF: What is the most important thing our listening audience should know about family medical leave and paid sick leave?
VS: There is a role that everyone around the country can play if you care about this issue. This is the time to make sure that that the journalists and social media folks in your area know that these are issues that matter to you. If you’ve have candidates coming through your area, ask them where they stand. Your local elected officials (and even your federal elected officials) need to know that you want a basic paid sick days law in this country and that you want family and medical leave protection that offers some pay to people when they need to take leave to care for a new baby or a sick loved one or when they themselves fall sick. These issues are gaining so much momentum, and we’re seeing news article after news article writing that this topic is “the next big thing,” but it’s up to the people to bring these changes to fruition.
If you have something to say or a personal story to share, write a Letter to the Editor, write an Op-Ed, or write to your legislators. Let them know that it is crazy that in this country we do not have the most basic paid sick day standards—that new moms and new dads and people who have family and medical needs can’t both support their families and care for their families. It’s time for that to change.
About the Author
Morgan Motzel is an undergraduate senior in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at Penn focusing on Management and Latin America.